2011: A year in the life of farm and food

Jan 4, 2012

Whether it was thanks to the Farm Bill, MF Global's bankruptcy, vicious flooding or high land prices, farmers were in the headlines throughout the Midwest in 2011.

On our Field Notes podcast, we took a look at the long year farmers and foodies had. We've showcased Harvest Public Media's most-read stories in 2011. And we want to know what the big stories of 2012 will be (tell us here!)

January: A season for soaring land prices in the agriculture world

While city dwellers continued to see real estate value plummet, January brought about big money for successful crop and cattle farmers who owned land. 2010 wound down with high prices for commodities such as corn and more people wanted in on the farm action. In Iowa and Nebraska, land prices shot up over 30 percent.

February: GE sugar beet showdown

The sugar beet is seldom eaten whole for dinner, but this hearty rootvegetable is more of staple than you might think. It was at the center of the most recent fight over genetically engineered food in February when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, citing a possible sugar shortage, allowed farmers to plant the crop despite earlier court rulings.

March: Pork…more than the other white meat

It was an exciting year for the pork industry. With a new slogan and record-high prices for hogs, the pig business did well year round. The new slogan takes on a more philosophical angle with “Pork, Be Inspired,” a big change from the old “Other White Meat.” Even with corn shortages at the lowest levels in 15 years, hog farmers were bringing home enough bacon to afford high feed costs. Pork exports since the slogan switch have shot up 42 percent, and in October, American pork producers shipped out 413 million pounds more pork than were imported into the U.S.

April: Watch your calories in restaurants, but not at the movies

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in 2010 over 25 percent of adults in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas were obese. The statistics for children get worse: since 1980, obesity has almost tripled. In an effort to curb the heavy trend in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration in April released potential rules that would require restaurants and other places that serve food to display the number of calories per servingwhere customers can see them. The locations exempt from this rule include some of the best places to overeat: the movie theater, the bowling alley or at the airport. The FDA opened its ears for a comment period in the spring and the rules are expected to into effect sometime in 2012.

May: Flooding woes

High waters across the Midwest left many farmers and rural dwellers homeless and landless for weeks on end in May. Mostly along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, farmers were forced to evacuate their homes and fields as the rivers rose to historic levels and reminding those who could remember of severe flooding in 1927 and 1993. Many flooded areas are still inaccessible today. Spring storms and widespread melted snow from the north caused this huge flood that stretched from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

June: The plate takes the pyramid

The FDA launched a Food Pyramid-replacement dubbed “MyPlate” that changed the way the Food and Drug Administration suggests Americans build each meal. This new eating guide compliments First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” exercise and healthy eating campaign. The simple MyPlate design quarters a plate into grain, protein, fruit and vegetable sections with a neighboring cup of dairy. MyPlate was met with some relief as it meant the end of the unpopular MyPyramid graphic, but as market research group NPD found in early December, MyPlate is not on everyone’s dinner table.

July: A dry, hot American summer

It was more than a little dry this year in Midwestern farming communities. A massive drought left farmers and livestock longing for a little rainfall to fix parched fields. It was the second warmest summer on record, and in states like Texas and Kansas, non-irrigated cropland went almost the entire summer with no rainfall. In Kansas, it wasn’t until a heavy snowfall in December that the state received the precipitation it needed. No rain meant damaged or ruined crops across the Midwest, some starving herds of livestock, and some farmers were forced to sell their animals or pay extra for feed from less dry northern states. The dangerous weather meant widespread crop shortages that were felt all the way to the grocery store with higher prices for corn and peanut products, among others.

August: Farmers are tech geeks, too

August brought the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  annual report on computer use in rural American. For Twitter and Facebook users, the jump in computer use on the farm is no surprise. Farmers have recently taken to social media outlets to connect with consumers and fans directly, and the popular #agchat Twitter feed connects hundreds of farmers and consumers on a weekly basis. In 2011, 62 percent of U.S. farms had Internet access, compared with 59 percent in 2009. Rural communities log on most often with DSL speed connections, and the USDA finds almost 40 percent of farms use the tool for business matters.

September: Food safety and the cantaloupe

Almost nine months after President Barack Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act, a Kansas City, Mo., man passed away after eating cantaloupe tainted with the listeria bacteria. Nationwide, the cantaloupe outbreak became one of the deadliest food safety scares in history with 146 people sick and 30 dead from complications with the listeriosis infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak finalized in early December.

October: Local food goes mainstream with everyday low prices

In early October, Walmart announced it would add its name to the local food movement in a big way by 2015.  The retail and food giant plans todouble the sale of locally sourced produce. Still, it’s likely farmers markets are the place for sweet corn harvested down the road—Walmart defines “local” as grown within the same state. With well over 60 stores in the Great Plains states, Midwestern farmers get more mileage and a new customer base to introduce to the local food trend.

November: Keystone XL pipeline shelved until after 2012 presidential election

The proposed extension of the North American Keystone Pipeline System was put on the back burner after Obama delayed the decision to build the structure until 2013. The 326 mile extension would construct a passage for 700,000 gallons of crude oil to pass over the Ogallala aquifer near Steele City, Neb. Protests were led by farmers and ranchers who fear a possible leak or spill could damage their pure water resource. The Keystone debate was reopened, however, by year's end.

December: End of the line for the ethanol blenders tax credit (VEETC)

2011 is the last year the corn ethanol industry will be supported by a 45 cent-per-gallon tax credit known as VEETC. Oil companies that blend the fuel into gasoline have benefited most from the subsidy, but the tax break for blenders has cost taxpayers more than $6 billion over the years. The end of the tax credit might mean more costly gasoline, but not by much. Without the 45-cent-per-gallon credit, that means lower prices to ethanol producers and higher costs to fuel blenders.

We want to hear from you! What will the big stories of 2012 be? Click here to tell us what you think.

Jessica Naudziunas reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out harvestpublicmedia.org.